Saturday, July 29, 2006

Who Tells the Truth about Climate Change?

Keywords: climate change; oil corporations; journalism; economic interests; global warming; disinformation; David Suzuki Foundation.

Do the deceive us about ? If so, why?

I’ve always resisted the explanation of ideological opinion as based simply on one's . It seems insulting to attribute a person’s opinions to the material benefits that he would gain from persuading the general public to accept those views. I assume that few people are dishonest enough to twist the truth habitually.

Though I still avoid imputing others’ ideas to their private motivations, reality probably lies someplace in between plain yes and no. Not everyone distorts the truth for self-serving reasons, but some people do, some of the time. This happens when it comes to the explanation of . Certain corporations seem to be conducting campaigns, attempting to discredit genuine scientists and mislead the public. What kind of mind would knowingly obstruct the dissemination of knowledge about a matter so important for the future of our planet? Can alone explain such behavior? I would feel morally defeated by having to adopt such a crass interpretation of human nature. But still …

In 1988 the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environmental Programme established an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its mission was to evaluate the peer-reviewed, published so as to provide clear grounds for formulating . It has concluded that there is a consensus of scientific opinion that the climate is being affected by human activities and that most of the observed global warming over the past 50 years probably was caused by greenhouse gas increases. Likewise, the American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science have all officially recognized the overwhelming evidence in favor of this position: that human beings are modifying the climate.

Professors Naomi (see photo) and Roger , Jr. conducted a study of the scientific literature on climate change by analyzing 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003. Some 75 percent of these papers explicitly endorsed the consensus position, whereas the remainder addressed such topics as methodology and took no position on the anthropogenic interpretation of climate change. “Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position.”

mentions this study in his film, An Inconvenient Truth, correctly concluding that there is no longer any controversy among scientists on this matter. Nevertheless, he points out that the press regularly depicts climate change as an unresolved question that, until now, has been neither established empirically nor explained. Why would the misrepresent the status of scientific knowledge on this topic?

There are two reasons. First, journalists are taught to seek for “balance” in their reporting. The best way to fulfill this norm is to find and quote someone who disagrees with the new statement that is going to be reported. If no reputable scholar happens to be available to articulate the “other opinion,” the temptation is to find someone else – almost anyone – who will do so. Hence the baseless opinions of unqualified commentators often are reported as authentic.

Second, journalists can always find spokespersons for particular material interests, just as suggested. With regard to climate change, the most obvious groups benefiting from the present state of affairs are the oil interests. And these companies, being well represented in government, are in a good position to influence the ’s policies and even the public statements that government researchers can make. For example, the New York Times reported early this year that NASA’s top climate scientist declared that his work was being by the government public affairs staff.

Chris Mooney, reporting in Mother Jones, notes that some fossil fuel companies — especially — have been funding neoconservative organizations that try to undermine mainstream scientific findings on global climate change. He cites the Center for Public Integrity to show that Exxonmobil has spent $55 million on over the past six years. In addition, certain conservative think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research also are providing reports for the policymakers, the media, and the general public that are designed to give the appearance of authentic science. Their papers are not, however, published in refereed scientific journals and therefore lack credibility among scientific researchers. These authors (who call themselves “climate change skeptics”) seek to delay action on climate change. One writer of such material, affiliated to the libertarian Cato Institute, is , who publishes a website called Exxonmobil gave $40,000 to the Advancement of Sound Science Center, which is registered to Steven Milloy’s residential address, and another $50,000 to the Free Enterprise Action Institute, also registered to his home address. In one critique of a scientific paper, Milloy dismisses the current increases in global temperature by claiming that the represent only natural variability. Harvard oceanographer , who headed the research for that study, replied: “In order to take that position, you have to refute hundreds of scientific papers that reconstruct various pieces of this climate puzzle.” I am forced to accept this discouraging conclusion: Some moneyed interests do seem to be preventing the spread of important facts that are required for the preservation of our planet.

Yet this is only part of the story, for there is evidence that some other companies, including Shell, Texado, British Petroleum, Ford, General Motors, and DaimlerChrysler, have been converted and now recognize the importance of climate change. Even such business publications as The Economist are calling for action to combat global warming. Bart Mongoven, writing for Stratfor on July 27, claims that it is misleading to depict the cleavage of opinion about climate change nowadays as a split between “industry versus environmentalists.” Times have changed, and the various players have come to hold more complex positions that must be reported accurately. “Industry's view of the science behind public policy has changed markedly in recent years,” writes Mongoven. Moreover, according to the David Suzuki Foundation, “Most skeptics no longer deny that climate change is happening, but instead argue that the cost of taking action is too high — or even worse, that it is too late to take action. All of these arguments are false and are rejected by the scientific community at large.”

Panels of journalists and scientists held a meeting in Washington on July 25 to discuss the mainstream reporting of the issue. Both groups agreed that the “the greatest shortcoming has been in persistent portrayals of the issue as one of contentious scientific debate: In reality, the assembled scientists said, man-made climate change is generally accepted throughout the scientific community as a reality.” According to Mongoven, the are now struggling to change their portrayal of climate issue, especially since business interests are now changing their tune, and since policy decisions are being deregulated and therefore are more often being made by the general public. It is increasingly important for the public to become better informed, and this will require for the news media to change the way they report issues. Journalists must focus more on the technical, rather than the political aspects. However, in doing so,

“a news outlet runs the risk of boring the public and losing sales. On the other hand, a shift in this direction also could dramatically increase the media's relevance in the policymaking process."

But nobody promised that it would be easy to report undesired news. We all — not just rich industrialists — have a tendency to block out whatever we don't want to hear. But the calling of journalism is honorable and necessary, so please bring it on, fellows. We need to hear the truth.


Blogger Tim said...

Your comments are timely given the sweltering temperatures in our neck of the woods. Sadly, I feel that companies and their boards are primarily responsible to delivering profitability to its shareholders. Given that the board members are the biggest stockholders, they have a vested financial interest.

I would compare the oil companies of today to the tobacco companies: they make their well-being marketing and selling harmful products to the world. They then do small things to make it seem like they actually care while pouring in much more money to their 'sinister' causes.

Philip-Morris, for example, has a web site dedicated to help you stop smoking. While well-meaning, it is simply good public relations, designed to attract shareholders and to soften the corporate image. The fact is if that the tobacco company was ethical, it would voluntarily disband itself. Of course they won't do that. Governments need the tax money from the tobacco sales though they know that a ban on smoking would reduce health care costs beyond the tax benefit that they receive. Irony?

Similarly, car companies are releasing gas-electic hybrid lines of vehicles, voluntarily, to appease those who want more mileage from their car. However, vehicle manufacturers are very aware that the bulk of their income comes from SUV sales.

The fact is that as long as we continue to rely on carbon-based fuels, we are going to continue to increase carbon dioxide emissions and ruin our world. The madness has to stop, and as long as the government's head is in the sand (it doesn't help that Canada's economic boom is related to oil revenues in Alberta and that the American President is a very good friend of the oil companies), we're all doomed.

That's not what your story is about though. Journalists, when graduating from university, learn to report both sides of the story. But the truth is that journalists are locked to some extent to the politics of who they are writing for. They are in competition for precious space, which, with takeovers, is becoming smaller and smaller.

There is a sea change happening on this front. Governments accept that this is happening, and are starting to think about what they can do about it. The Americans were probably shaken by Katrina, Rita, and Wilma, which, arguably, were strenghtened due to increased sea temperatures which is a product of climate change. Given the immense costs of putting buffers around New York, Washington, Boston, Los Angeles, et al, the US government is starting to look at it. Hopefully, George Bush won't be around long enough to tell us what to do about it.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Rex said...

tim- Is it possible that board members "are primarily responsible " to the web of life from which they spring & only secondarily responsible to other shareholders? If life is, unavoiably, everybody's life-long responsibility. why would any living being choose to invest in the manufacture or mining of products that are bad for life? Surely, when we stop to consider the reality of our situation, we should all be able to see that the only bottom line that really matters is life itself!

5:41 PM  
Blogger Tim said...


Our standard of living on this planet is inheritently bad for life. Driving our car, using electricity, processing our waste matter and dumping it into a landfill, using plastic; all of it is bad for life.

I am not painting all board members as inheritently greedy. Bill Gates has chosen to take most of his fortune and divert it to battling disease. In fact, I would say that most board members are probably good people who sit on the boards of chartible causes and contribute portions of their wealth to these causes.

However, the members of the boards of corporations have a responsibility to the corporation to preserve and and extend the wealth of the company and its shareholders, not "of life". While it would be nice for shareholders to keep this in mind, until there is a "life" taxable benefit to the company, they will continue to operate to the extent of the law. If the worldwide law was to change, for example, for a global mininum wage or work standard, and for a global minimum environmental standard, then all companies would have to work within these guidelines. But there are no such laws, and a company will choose to operate where costs are cheapest in order to maximize profits to its shareholders.

Even the oil companies, who are making record profits, are pratising an oligopoly where they keep the price of oil high by purposefully keeping refining capacity tight, thus increasing their profits, even though they know that can reduce their margins simply by reducing prices at the pump.

12:54 PM  
Blogger Metta Spencer said...

Yes, and the problem is very structural. By law, the directors of corporations are obliged to put the interests of their shareholders ahead of other considerations. That's obviously nuts, but we need to get the law changed. I think it's one of those changes that will happen through a series of judicial decisions rather than through legislation. But I'd certainly support legislative initiatives.

8:43 PM  

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